A maternal justice advocate explains how you can help get pregnant women released from ICE detention centers

An immigrant from El Salvador, seven months pregnant, she said, stands next to a U.S. Border Patrol truck after turning herself in to border agents on December 7, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas
John Moore/Getty Images

On July 9th, Ema O’Connor and Nidhi Prakash published an investigative report on BuzzFeed News detailing the horrific conditions in ICE detention centers that have caused pregnant immigrant women to miscarry while under U.S. government supervision. Pregnant refugees seeking asylum had shackles placed around their stomachs, were denied prenatal treatment, lost dangerous amounts of weight, and were refused medical treatment when miscarriages began. An Obama-era policy had previously mandated that pregnant women could not be detained, and the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy ended that directive.

The barbaric separation and imprisonment of immigrant families at the border has thankfully received widespread attention and motivated national protests (as of today, more than 700 immigrant children have still not been reunited with their families despite the federal deadline). But for many, BuzzFeed’s thorough article was their first time learning that detained pregnant women had been harmed to the point of miscarriage.

For MomsRising — a grassroots organization focused on maternal justice, health care, immigration, and human rights — the BuzzFeed article corroborated the stories of detained women they had already been defending.

I spoke to Nadia Hussain, Maternal Justice Campaign Director at MomsRising, about the inhumane treatment of pregnant immigrant women in ICE detention centers, their campaigns and policy initiatives to free these women and end family imprisonment, and how we can support their actions. As Hussain tells me, Trump’s entire immigration policy and mistreatment of pregnant women is based on punishment, resulting in human rights violations and a rejection of America’s supposed democratic values. “It is an abomination; it is unacceptable,” she says. “It’s time to speak up. We’ve seen with the family separations that people are saying something, and it’s making a difference. [Detainment of pregnant women] is part of that same issue.”

On July 25th, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment “limiting” ICE agents’ ability to shackle detained pregnant women — but this does not completely outlaw the heinous practice or put the Obama-era policy back in place. MomsRising is sponsoring another piece of legislation, the Stop Shackling and Detaining Pregnant Women Act, which you can read more about — along with more information on MomsRising and direct actions you can support — in our conversation below.


HelloGiggles (HG): Can you share more information about what pregnant women are enduring in these detention centers?

Nadia Hussain (NH): Last year, actually last summer, MomsRising advocated on a case for a woman who was pregnant and detained. Her family had started a petition on MoveOn to bring attention to her situation. She was undocumented and the mother of three U.S. born children…and she was picked up on her way to work. She actually found out she was pregnant at the detention center; she did not know she was pregnant before. Obviously, her family was distraught and worried about her condition, and that [petition] is how we found out about it.

We were able to eventually get her out after collaborating with the ACLU of San Diego and Senator Kamala Harris’s office…We also created a petition and put out calls to action for our members. But during the time that she was in detention, we got news that she wasn’t doing well — meaning that she was very worried about miscarrying. She also knew other women at the detention center — specifically the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego where she was being held — who had miscarried.

She was petrified of miscarrying. She was forced to clean her cell with very harsh chemicals, there was absolutely no consideration given to her because of her pregnant state, she was not given proper health care or food, she was losing weight, and she had to lift her bed and other heavy things to clean which are all harmful factors for someone in pregnancy. These were things that she was telling us — there was no coverage of it. When we did research, there was a history of detained women who had miscarried and lost their pregnancies in detention centers.

So we know that there isn’t adequate healthcare generally — and not for a pregnant woman who has even more elevated health needs. But the difference is that the Obama administration did take action to have a policy, a directive, that pregnant women not be held in detention centers. So, let’s say a pregnant woman was held in an ICE detention center, you could take action and say, there’s an administrative directive to stop this, that [the woman] had to be let out. However, that directive has been thrown out the window [under the Trump administration]; it’s been overturned. Now it’s no holds barred, anybody can be detained at any time. Doesn’t matter if they’re pregnant, there’s no credence given to it.

So how did we know what was happening? She — her name is Maria Solis — let us know, and her sister know, that this was happening. We didn’t have any other proof of it. We’re not journalists. And then, a year later, this BuzzFeed article literally mentioned Otay Mesa Detention Center as a place where women had lost their pregnancies, corroborating Maria’s story.

HG: You’ve been working to free these women from such horrifying conditions for some time. How does MomsRising specifically fight for them?

NH: We are glad the BuzzFeed article came out. We really feel like this is the tip of the iceberg of this issue. I mean, that’s why you’re asking me — there aren’t a lot of great resources about this happening. MomsRising has been working on mass incarceration’s impact on mothers and families, and I work on that with my campaign. One of the things we’re doing specifically is with Senator Patty Murray. In the U.S. Senate, she has introduced a piece of legislation called the Stop Shackling and Detaining Pregnant Women Act.…This bill is in response to the BuzzFeed article. So that’s what she’s mentioned directly, as one of the reasons this bill was even put forth.

It is endorsed by the ACLU, as well as the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists — they’re known as ACOG. Now, this is a pretty big deal that ACOG is actually endorsing this bill from the get-go — a group that is for obstetrics and gynecologists, for the doctors who actually work on this issue nationally. For them to immediately step forward and endorse this — that tells you a lot about how dire and how unconscionable this detainment is. The fact that a healthcare professional would automatically sign on to something like this.

MomsRising is also endorsing this bill, so we will be putting out support for this bill, a petition, and a poll for our members to urge their senators to co-sponsor this bill. And on the educational front, we are having a TweetChat on Monday, July 30th, from 8-9 p.m. EST about women in mass incarceration with the Prison Policy Initiative as well as #cut50 — which is another campaign working to help incarcerated women specifically.

Detention is a little different, but it’s still the fact that women are in prison in a pregnant state. And that really is unacceptable for us as a country.

HG: Are there more policies that your organization hopes to see implemented in the future?

NH: So, in terms of detention, we need to have this directive back in place. Pregnant women should not be detained like this.

First and foremost, the directive should be reinstated that pregnant women should absolutely not be detained whatsoever in immigration detention. Pregnancy is a heightened health situation. That doesn’t mean these women don’t have to report to court, or any of that, but detaining them in a cell, in a jail, is absolutely wrong and infuriating. It points poorly to any value on human rights in our nation.

There are alternatives to detention that have been shown to work. I believe ICE themselves have done some pilot programs that have shown a very high court turnout rate. And those programs have saved money. It’s about $60 per family to use an alternative to detention — meaning these families are released and they still have a high turnout rate to court. But detaining a family costs hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Detention is ineffective and it hurts people, for no other reason than basically torturing and punishing them. It’s really an abomination for a nation that supposedly values families.

HG: How will the trauma of being detained and losing their pregnancies impact the health of these women, mentally and physically, in the future?

NH: I mean, just the family separation first of all, and the children who are currently still separated from their families and detained, health experts and child welfare experts have already come out to say this is abhorrent for a child’s development and it causes the kids to have PTSD.

It’s the same thing for women being separated from their children or miscarrying. We are actively [following] PTSD in these women. And when I say “these women,” I mean fellow human beings, people who have come to this country for a better life, for opportunity, for their families and future families.

As far as the long term impact on their reproductive health and their bodies due to having an improperly managed pregnancy — having no ability to properly manage their pregnancy — I can only imagine the physical health effects of that, let alone the mental health effects of having a miscarriage.


HG: How can readers support MomsRising in your efforts to protect detained pregnant women?

NH: MomsRising is a membership organization. Our membership is free, so you just go on momsrising.org and you put in your email to join our email list. All of our members get all of our petitions, which are delivered directly to Congress. If someone is interested in campaigning, they can join MomsRising and get the emails and updates about our immigration efforts.

They can also go to our website and look through our blog and our campaigns. We post some of our activities and actions there as well. And calling their senators and telling them to support this bill. Calling representatives and letting them know that this is unacceptable and that you need their support on this bill. We want all senators to know that this goes against anything that a democratic society should be supporting.

Sign our petitions, share things on social media — we always share things on our social media — and spread the word about what is happening. Share the BuzzFeed article. People need to know this is really happening and we need to stand up against it. If you or anybody you know is connected to any pregnant woman in detention, notify somebody. Notify MomsRising, the ACLU, your local newspaper. Notify your elected officials. Now is not the time to be quiet.

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